Raising Mass Attendance

Everyone I talk to in church circles would like to increase attendance at Sunday worship, but I don’t see a whole lot of success stories out there. So I was intrigued when Paulist Evangelization Exchange linked to a story at Catechist’s Journey that described a 64% increase in attendance at one parish in Chicago this year, and reported the steps this parish took to increase their Mass attendance.

These efforts included direct mail, email, witness talks, youth choir, “Sports Mass” (not sure what that is) plus—get ready for it—prizes! The kids in the parish school got both individual and classroom prizes for attendance. The result? They showed up, and they urged each other to go. Increased Mass-going became an all-parish project, especially among families.

Now, you may say (you will say) that people ought to go to Mass for the sake of the Eucharist itself, and I would agree. What more of a prize do you need than communion with our Lord and Savior? But, human nature being what it is, people tend to look for short term gains, and this parish supplied them with additional incentives to go. In short, the shot at a pizza party brought the kids in, whereas relying on the merits of the open door and two millennia of tradition did not.

I know there is a strong assumption among many pastoral leaders that says “if you get them in there, for any reason whatsoever, you’ve got a chance at them staying for a better reason.” This reasoning suggests that anything that gets people through the door is worth doing.

I’m not quite sure about that, myself. Historically, Catholics have gotten people through the door by offering schools, and they fell away after graduation. We’ve offered beautiful venues for marriage vows, and they cared little for the faith after they got what they came for. We’ve used the stick as well as the carrot—threatening damnation for failure to attend—and thereby increased skepticism rather than increased faith.

But at the same time I know it’s important to come together in season and out, and habits don’t form without community support. It’s not unpardonable to work with nature, our human nature that loves pizza and sports and being together, in order to open a pathway to heavenly food and “being together” with God.

What do you think? Is the chance that faith will be “caught” inside our doors sufficient warrant for incentivizing Mass attendance by giving perks for it in the parish school, or somehow linking it to sports? Does a witness talk at every Mass sound like heaven to you, or like purgatory?

The drama of this one-year increase did drop off somewhat in the parish after the initial push, but the level of attendance has remained significantly higher than it was. This suggests to me that something is working. Could it be that so many people were involved it really did become a community project?

The pastor wrote about the experience, thanking everyone, and he observed that “A number of families told me that after 4–5 weeks of going to Mass, that future attendance was moving from a “hope to” to a priority.”

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33 comments

  1. Attendance at Mass (if not for cultural and family reasons) is primarily a fruit of a discipleship and not a cause. Liturgy is not evangelical in the sense in that it evangelizes the unevangelized but rather it spurs disciples to greater union with God and the task of evangelization. While God can inspire anyone anywhere, it is a wrong attitude to fill pews with the hope of “catching faith” one doesn’t already have. Rather evangelization takes place outside of the pews in families, work places, coffee shops, and volunteer opportunities.

    For that reason, I have never liked the idea of inviting a friend to Mass for that reason. Invite a friend to a fellowship meal, a bible study, a volunteer/service project, a theology on tap or a catechetical talk. Faith comes first, then liturgy.

    1. I’ve encountered people who either converted to Catholicism – or “reverted” (i.e. became more serious about practicing it) both ways. I had a friend in college who more-or-less read his way into the Church after taking a general interest in Christianity. I know another person, however, who converted after attending a Mass while serving in the military. The one experience was all he needed.

      It’s also very common, if one attends the EF, to encounter a lot of people who were lukewarm or non-practicing their faith, but stumbled upon the Latin Mass and were taken by its quiet, mystery, beauty, etc. For me a major conversion experience was attending a Benediction service in my early 20s – I had come to hear a historical talk I thought might be interesting and had never even heard of benediction before. When practically everyone around me started singing the traditional Latin hymns (un-led and un-accompanied) it blew me away and I had a profound sense of communal worship that I had never experienced before and a strong desire to be part of it.

  2. I would love to see a five-year report on this parish. Do they see increased numbers elsewhere in parish life? Will they be flush with catechists, committee members and cash?

    I suspect that when a new pastor is assigned, things will take a nosedive. A young, handsome pastor like the parish in the article surely will have an easier time attracting young families in the short term than Fr. Frumpy who is 19 months from retirement and has a ripoff calendar in the sacristy.

    The success story mentioned seems entirely personality driven (selfies with a priests, time with a priest as a prize). There is nothing wrong with that ipso facto, but I doubt the model is going to be reproducible in many other places, save for suburban parishes that have a young pastor with a chiseled jaw line and a winning smile.

    1. I do not think the article refers to authentic growth in a parish. Apparently, the Archdiocese of Chicago counts congregations during October and this story and related activities were all done as a short-term effort to increase that number, which was successful…..short term and therefore, I am presuming, the parish continued. Once October rolled around and the count was done, it was back to SOP. The pastor references that some who made the effort will continue beyond this time period.

      What is necessary for authentic long-term growth are the efforts put forth, not as a “Hail Mary” pass, but as a part of the parish’s daily outreach efforts. In other words, keep it up forever.

      I do not know what was told to parishioners, but I am guessing that this effort was put forth as a short-term answer to the parish’s problem: Betters numbers for Mass Attendance. In answer to this short-term problem, success was achieved.

      1. Hi Roger,

        Yes, boosting numbers for the October count was definitely the goal. I agree that proof of lasting success is if this growth takes root and continues to characterize parish life. Of course it’s too soon to talk about “long term growth” given that we are only 3 months away from October.

        There may be some long term growth, however. The author says that “while that number has not been sustained at that level beyond October, there continues to be a sustained increase in attendance.” He does not say what that “sustained increase” is, but even if it were half of the increase experienced in October, that would still be phenomenal. I don’t know any parish that would sniff at that.

      2. Rita,

        I wonder if they curtailed all activities. Things such as email alerts to parishioners and periodic testimonies (since they seem open to this) seem to me to be easily achieved?

        I would think periodic EDDM would work well for them.

        I could not find their bulletin online, but they do have an elaborate website…it is interesting.

        By the way, Janet says hi!

      3. Oh, please give Janet my love!

        I think you are right; some of these activities such as automatic reminder notices quite sustainable. Periodic witness talks could serve as a reminder that the parish is alive and growing.

        When you commented earlier that increases in the collection would be something to be hoped for, I couldn’t help thinking: Yeah… who is going to pay for the pizza!?

  3. Rita,

    I am sorry to say that all of the means they used to increase attendance (and I was wondering….did it also increase the offering?) are necessary these days. I have started using some and am in the process of hiring a social media firm to assist in the effort. I grew up with a HUGE sense of AMDG and I live it now as best I can…..but boy, I don’t see a lot of it out there.

    THANK YOU for sharing this “success” story…..it is an eye opener

  4. We used (previous parish) to get three or four people each year deciding to become Catholics after regularly coming to Mass with their children. So it can be liturgy leading to faith.
    Liturgy was an important factor for the Kievan Rus “we did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth”. After all, if you are searching for God, and many I think are more or less active seekers, you might well look in a church! (or a mosque, or … depending on your locale)

  5. Have you seen the blurb on “Mass Impact” that are going around? I haven’t been able to get a handle on that organization yet. Anybody know them?

  6. The real key in my opinion isn’t getting them in the door, it’s giving them something that makes them want to stay. In college I experienced Catholicism in a new way through the Newman Center on campus. I went for Mass and for four years I stayed for the community. I often see commentary about young people leaving after school, marriage, baptism of a child, etc. We need to look at this and see what we’re offering them to stay. Do we have groups for them to belong to that are relevant to them? I’m sorry but the K of C and Altar and Rosary societies aren’t cutting it any more. We have to transition from being Catholic churches or Catholic parishes to being Catholic communities. There is a reason that the large “powerpoint” churches are packed… they get people involved as soon as possible.

  7. While we “need to meet people where they are”, what if “where they are” is getting in their way?

    Where too many Americans are is a place that relies on constant information and gratification. We’re trained to be that way.

    How is this place in our way?

    Because many of the most important realities of life don’t involve information (and feelings/emotions are a (relatively crude but sometimes vital) form of information) or gratification of desire – they are not overtly sensory in the nature – we may only sense them in apprehension or in retrospect, if at all, but not necessarily in the now. (I think of how I came to a fuller engagement with each of my late parents after their mortal lives came to an end – in retrospect, it’s so obvious to me, but while I had growing/deepening experiences, the fact of death does alter the retrospective context to put much more in complete relationship.)

    Catholicism and Orthodoxy have long experience with this reality, but Catholics in the pews seem to be estranged from it (not necessarily by choice on their part, but by failure to engage them in it). It’s so foreign to contemporary American culture, which is about experience and achievement – about human doing, not human being.

    Think about how Sister Wendy Beckett experienced her First Communion as a child: in the documentary for her 80th birthday, IIRC, she recounted how much she looked forward to hearing what Jesus would say to her after she first received, and when she finally received and then expectantly . . . she heard nothing. The remarkable thing is that she realized in that moment that God’s way of communicating was . . . silence. Does that sound … strange? I suspect most Americans (including most American Catholics) would find it at least a head-scratcher. How does our liturgical life prepare us for this?

  8. I see the Chatechists Journey article says “Having said that, the parish experienced a 64% increase in the 2017 October count over 2016—nothing to sneeze at, for sure. And while that number has not been sustained at that level beyond October, there continues to be a sustained increase in attendance. ” My emphasis.
    Perhaps we should wait for a few more months to judge.

  9. If you want to read about a true success story, check our Nativity Church in Timonium, Md (churchnativity.com). Yes its a Catholic Church with an evangelical twist (music, homily series, coffee bar..yea, you get the idea) but it works. Fr White and his staff turned a dying parish into one of the most “successful” parishes in the nation. If you want to know the secret (its no secret really) check out his books and parish website. Faith in Jesus Christ, acceptance of His pure grace and living out the Gospel is key and foundation in any parish.

    1. Hi Joe,

      I wondered when someone was going to bring up Nativity church! Thanks for your comment.

      One of the reasons this example in Chicago is interesting is precisely because it did not involve a total redesign of the parish. Nor did the parish take on any of the features of the megachurch model.

      For better or worse, the Nativity model requires a complete redesign. Yet if the results of what one might call “concerted efforts at marketing” could make a difference without a redesign, it suggests that there is more than one way to spur growth.

      1. I had never heard of Nativity Church….OMG

        I am blown out of the water…..commitment on every corner! A HUGE pastoral team of, I am guessing, volunteers and most strikingly YOUNG PEOPLE IN ABUNDANCE.

        I will explore and perhaps visit. The important part is no parish can duplicate this experience, but there are elements which can be adapted to enhance growth and participation……and the question always is….WHY are not more parishes doing just that, rather than being defeatist and wondering who they will be merged with.

        Quick update…..just ordered the two books…

      2. “the Nativity model requires a complete redesign”

        Rita – I think “redesign” is a bit of an understatement :-). According to the book “Rebuilt”, it involved firing virtually the entire staff and “firing” a good many parishioners, too. It’s scarcely an overstatement to say that they blew the whole thing up and started over again.

        By comparison, what Christ the King did was what I believe the “Rebuilt” team would consider conventional half-measures that simply reinforce parishioners’ tendencies to be consumers of spiritual services.

        I would think that not many pastors would have the appetite – or the desperation – for going as far as the “Rebuilt” team did.

      3. Jim P., thanks for your comment.

        It seems to me that the approach Christ the King parish is using is more consonant with American Catholic religious history than the Rebuilt approach is. The work CK did reminded me of Fr. Patrick Peyton’s “rosary crusade” and his “the family that prays together stays together” efforts to revitalize suburban Catholic homes that Jim McCartin described in his book, Prayers of the Faithful: The Shifting Spiritual Life of American Catholics. It’s a different time in American history, true, but there is something familiar about this impulse, and that could work in its favor.

      4. “The work CK did reminded me of Fr. Patrick Peyton’s “rosary crusade” and his “the family that prays together stays together” efforts to revitalize suburban Catholic homes”

        I agree somewhat. I would say that what Fr. Peyton did – building up the church of the family, and connecting that to the local parish – is not the same thing as bribing them with pizza to come to church. 🙂

        I’m also not sure what a “sports mass” is, but I am wondering if it’s something along the lines of, “come to 11 am mass, then stay for the Bears game telecast on our large screen TVs in the parish center.” There might be something to be said for that approach. Ultimately, we’d hope they’d continue to come to mass, even when football season ends.

    2. While Nativity is successful in welcoming, I have heard that their “Evangelical” flavor means that Sundays are the big focus and any kind of pastoral services during the week suffer.

      I have also heard that the neighboring parishes end up picking up and serving some of the “refugees” from Nativity who are “tired of being welcomed” and want something more substantial in their spiritual life and the life of their parish.

      Additionally, I wonder what will happen when Fr. White retires. Will Nativity continue being ‘successful’, or will it suffer the fate of many Evangelical megachurches when a charismatic pastor retires?

      Yes, Nativity is successful, and I would never argue that. But not in every way.

      1. Perhaps unlike any other religion’s founder other than Siddhārtha Gautama, Jesus repeatedly prepared his disciples for his eventual departure in the form they knew him.

        A Christian pastor who does not conduct his ministry with a keen awareness than his/her eventual departure and likely significant shifts by successors is failing his/her community. Pastors should be keenly aware of how their own personal charisma may set up the community for problems.

        Often with the best of intentions. As with many failures.

      2. Interesting points. Based on my reading, I would say that Nativity is sort of a “targeted parish”. They used some marketing techniques to define their “target market”. They defined an imaginary person they dubbed “Timonium Tim” – he is a family guy, he likes to watch football, he works in a white collar job, etc. They see Timonium Tim as representative of a certain profile of resident in their suburban Maryland area. They believed that the key to their success in rebooting the parish is to attract Timonium Tim. If they can get him into church, he’ll bring his family with him. Everything they do at Nativity is tailored to attracting Timonium Tim: the style of liturgical music, the content of “the message” (the tightly-coordinated theme that is preached across all their services on a given weekend), and so on.

        This is a classic marketing approach: Segment/Target/Promote. But I suppose an implication of that approach is that, if you don’t happen to fall into the “target market” exemplified by Timonium Tim, you might experience what we all experience when something is promoted for which we are not the target – marketers call that experience “discontent”.

        https://hbr.org/1989/11/marketing-and-its-discontents

        So those drifting to other parishes – the Timonium Not-Tims – are, quite literally, discontented.

        I wouldn’t say that this targeted approach depends on the personality of Fr. White. Conceivably, it could be handed off to another pastor, and the program could continue on. But my experience is that most new pastors come into a new parish thinking they already know “what works”, and I’d think it’s fairly unlikely that Nativity’s successful, but very targeted and disciplined, approach would survive a change in pastor.

      3. “So those drifting to other parishes – the Timonium Not-Tims – are, quite literally, discontented.”

        The great truth of Catholic parish life: we rarely if ever personally identify those who stop showing up (we do count collections and sacramental indices). Catholic pastors may talk a good game about inviting disagreement, but in my experience the sheep have much more ground to distrust that talk, and eventually decide to move on (and the pastors, consciously or subconsciously, depend on that). You can often see this with the evolution of pastoral council members: the change is gradual, but eventually all who might have material friction with the pastor, except the gadflies (people who enjoy being in open disagreement), will cycle off and be replaced by people with less risk of friction. It’s one reason that pastoral councils can never function as a proxy for the community as a whole, and no one should confuse them for being representative of the community – rather, they are best thought of as another arm of the pastor.

      4. “The great truth of Catholic parish life: we rarely if ever personally identify those who stop showing up”

        True. Although I do see some of them around at the grocery store, high school events, or in the pews at other parishes. There is usually some polite but mildly awkward conversation in which they ‘fess up that they don’t go to our parish anymore, and occasionally explain why. I try to be sympathetic and supportive. If they’ve found another parish, or even another Christian church, I do my best to be delighted that they’ve landed somewhere that works for them.

        Still, I suppose it’s not very insightful to note that parishes are supposed to be territorial. It’s difficult to square the targeting of Timonium Tim with the famous definition of Catholic, “Here comes everybody”.

      5. Jim,
        Territoriality has gone the way of the Dodo for decades now and I agree that there is not much being done to reach out to the “MIA”‘s, and that is perhaps a very bad thing, as society has become on many levels an exercise in passive-aggressive behavior. It’s easier to simply disappear than to speak about the reason(s) why.

        However, in this “shrinking market” it would behove any pastor concerned about Mass attendance, shrinking sacramental records and the possibility of being closed/merged to search out success stories, such as Nativity and to glean some of the good to assist their own parish perhaps turn around declining statistics and reintroduce vibrancy and with it growth.

        To me, the greater truth lies in the reality that there is absolutely no penalty to a pastor for failure or “riding a parish into the ground” other than being sent to another parish only to achieve the same outcome. That is the greater sin and precious little is done about it.

      6. Jim

        “Still, I suppose it’s not very insightful to note that parishes are supposed to be territorial.”

        They are, in the sense of one’s canonical domicile. What’s called “registration” has no effect on canonical domicile. But by the same token, since canon law changed in 1983, Catholics are otherwise free to parish/oratory-shop unless an ordinary legislates particular law to the contrary. About the only limitation son that freedoms are geographical distance/proximity and, for a much small group of Catholic parents, parochial school admissions barriers.

  10. Hi Rita and thanks so much for sharing this story and for facilitating the ensuing conversation. While I myself am not a fan of the “gimmicks” I thought it would provoke conversation which it has and I still applaud the pastor for showing creativity and energy toward the issue of mass attendance. I would like to see that sustained by more attention to how the liturgy is celebrated but this is a start.

    With reference to Nativity, Fr. Mike White, and Rebuilt, there is much good happening there but it is very personality driven and will have difficulty being sustained with a change of leadership. They also relied on an “our way or the highway” approach that I don’t agree with. While the pastor of CK is a great guy and, as mentioned by someone earlier, is “young and good looking,” he is not the kind of charismatic leader that often makes such success stories possible. There is no cult of personality going on there. That’s why I wrote in my book, A Church on the Move, that we have to develop ideas that can be implemented by parishes without a “rock star” pastor – which is most of our parishes. That’s not a knock on pastors…they are mostly good, holy, hard working men which, in my book, is preferable to the cult of personality.

    Anyway, thanks again, Rita, and I look forward to hearing some good creative ideas from people about how to increase mass attendance.

    1. Joe,

      Thank you for sharing and I note your comment that Nativity appears personality driven. I do not know this and am unsure one way or the other. I did sample a couple of sermons and, to be honest, I was not impressed with Fr. White’s preaching impressive…..I thought plain and ordinary bordering upon the monotone. Therefore, at least to my way of thought, there has to be a lot more to the situation than meets the casual eye.

      However, I note no deacon present. I do not know if that is by design. It appears to be a complete effort to meet the people of God where they are, which I applaud and utilizes very modern communication techniques which seem effective, while not inexpensive.

      One problem will be with Fr. White’s eventual replacement and unless the ordinary has a strong desire to continue and build up, sustainability will end. This is the same problem with most parishes as the majority of bishops react to situations as opposed to being forward acting preparing for future leadership in their parishes.

      I too am interested in practical ways to increase Mass attendance.

      1. Thanks Roger. Good point. I think in the case of Nativity, the personality-driven aspect is not so much a charismatic presiding/preaching style, but two men: Fr. Mike and Tom Corcoran, whose strong leadership styles (personalities) are driving the movement. The question, as always, is: when they move on, can things be sustained? The key is to create something that is sustainable and replicable. Thanks for sharing.

    2. Joe, I appreciate it that you stopped by to join the conversation. Thank you for taking the initiative to post the story in the first place! As you can see, it is garnering a lot of attention and generating a helpful discussion.

      Deacon Greg Kandra picked up the story, and it received 3K shares at Aleteia. That shows it was news that people felt they wanted others to see. There are no comments at that site, so we don’t know what reactions accompanied the interest.

      What I still haven’t seen here, and would like to hear more about, is other growth stories. I mean, a lot of parishes are concerned about this and trying to help, has nobody met with success in their efforts? We’ve had three examples surface in this discussion, despite 3,000 pageviews. Two of these are already famous in church circles, or at least I knew about them as “well known churches.” Maybe there are no more examples, but I suspect there are at least a few. I hear anecdotally about “Francis effect” in RCIA, but not in overall parish growth.

  11. Another model for parish renaissance, much closer to Christ the King’s home than Maryland, is the famous story of Old St. Pat’s on the near West Side of Chicago. When Frs. Jack Wall and John Cusick were assigned to the parish in 1983, there were a grand total of four registered parishioners. They came up with a program that would appeal to young adults who were starting to move into the gentrifying neighborhood. Now it’s an extremely vibrant parish. There is a PBS documentary about it. Here is a newspaper article that talks a bit about what was done.

    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2006-12-11/news/0612110099_1_parishioners-senior-pastor-urban-church

    I suppose it’s not very insightful to note that many parishes decline because the demographics of the community they serve change over time. That is seen time and time again in Chicago, for example when a parish built to serve an English-speaking community finds itself in a community that is predominantly Spanish-speaking. Or when a community of young families finds itself, 40 years later, a community of elderly people.

  12. View from the pew
    Regarding:” The kids in the parish school got both individual and classroom prizes for attendance. The result? They showed up, and they urged each other to go. Increased Mass-going became an all-parish project, especially among families.”
    – Seemingly, the starting point for ‘growth in the parochial church” or increase of numbers in attendance at Sunday Eucharist out to be the domestic church. That is, if it floats in the domestic church, the parochial church could be at ease to do the same.
    -The heads of the domestic church deal with multiple stages of development at any given time; not only the stages of development of the heads of this church but also the stages of development of others, customarily children, also living in the house.
    – Yes, children and young adults need the draw and the push; the carrot and the stick (metaphorical one). Thus it is no surprise that catechists, realizing the developmental issues of children and young people, will use different means of teaching the faith, and different ways of rewarding the attention given thereto by the children or young adults.
    – As any head of a domestic church, usually parents or guardians, knows it is not enough to lecture that we are a family. What is needed are hands-on practical actions and activities were ‘family’ is seen as an attainable goal, and a concept worthy of a child’s or young person’s participation.
    – For instance, an homily on the importance of community / eucharist / body of christ directed to a congregation means more to teenagers if they are allowed to organize and help each other to plan a pilgrimage to a local shrine, or an international religious congress, or to a nursing home, and so forth.
    – Yes people, mature in faith, do not need bon-bons, or certificates of participation. Then, these same people attend thank-you parties for ministers, confirmation soirees, clap for the baby at a baptism, and truly whoop it up for the catechumens on Holy Saturday.

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